On Wednesday evening I went along to a talk at a nearby library by David Dufty about his recent book ‘The Secret Code-Breakers of Central Bureau – How Australia’s signals intelligence network helped win the Pacific War’ published last year by Scribe.
It’s a great story that does uncover previously unacknowledged contributions. Dufty’s interest was sparked by a newspaper mention of Australian wartime code-breaking on Anzac Day 2012. His interest triggered a comprehensive research trail.
It’s a great read with a solid bibliography. He interviewed about twenty people who worked on breaking the Japanese codes. From a standing start, the operation grew to involve over 4,300 Australians – a venture, Dufty says, it’s hard to imagine us being able to mount as readily today.
He mentioned many of the characters from Australia’s early radio history, including Mrs Mac, Florence MacKenzie, who trained thousands of women morse operators who in turn were used to train many Australian servicemen.
He also mentioned Eric Nave who was responsible for breaking Japan’s Naval codes. Nave as a young naval cadet had spent years in Japan learning the language and culture of the country.
The character with the best nickname would have to be Keith ‘Zero’ Falconer. He was the country’s top interceptor of Japanese Kana coded messages. He got the nickname from his colleagues as every single day of Kana code training in Melbourne he would score zero errors in the test. Japanese hams can still be heard conversing in this code on the bands today.
The character who stands out from David Dufty’s talk on Wednesday evening is Stan or Pappy Clark. Apparently, prior to enlistment, his work was scripting radio serials for children. The mention of the magic word radio was enough to catch the eye of people recruiting for radio intelligence work, and it turned out to be a fortunate selection for Australia.
Stan Clark used his talents to develop a comprehensive knowledge of the Japanese communication networks and was able to analyse the dynamic ebb and flow of their radio traffic. Even if we weren’t able to decode every message the broad overview – which Dufty interpreted as the ‘metadata’ of the enemy’s radio communication – of this traffic analysis played a crucial role in determining the allied strategy of the war and effectively saved thousands of allied and enemy lives. Macarthur’s famous island hopping strategy was directly informed by this intelligence. One of the special things about Wednesday night was that unknown to Dufty until the end of his talk, Clark’s grandson and family were in the audience.
I’ve been wondering whether I should try to synchronise my most recent efforts at learning and improving my morse with a similar complementary neural mapping exercise of simultaneously learning to touch type as I practice copying morse code.
I was googling around – on the off-chance someone had developed the ultimate piece of software which combined G4FON Koch CW Trainer with Typist or some other touch type trainer, oh and for the Mac would be good – using the term “learning morse and to touch type at same time” and I discovered via Google Books Lewis Coe’s ‘The Telegraph’. Here on page 109 is mention of how operators could recognise their call in their sleep!
The highlighting is due to the google search term.
On pages 69-70 there’s mention of how the older operators used a mill to take down messages as they streamed in over the line.
Maybe the best approach would be to change the learning sequence of characters to match the character sequence of touch typing so that every character gets a double whammy of learning reinforcement. So F, J, D, K, S, L, A and ; (?) instead of K, M, R, S, U, A, P, T, L and O.
It shouldn’t be too hard to generate suitable static mp3 audio files of the touch type progression of characters. It would be great if there was a way to randomly generate according to this new progression, in a similar way to the G4FON software, with the alternate character sequence.
Also, I’m sure someone somewhere must have considered the learning pros and cons of such an approach.
I also found the perfect font to use. It’s called MILL
I was meandering around the web this morning and stumbled on to a page where famous key collector and curator Tom Perera W1TP had re-created the morse key setup used by Walter Winchell to introduce and punctuate his radio and later TV broadcasts. They were a pair of Vibroplex bugs.
I grew up in Sydney in the 1950s and remember how radio station 2UE would start their news bulletins with a brisk CQ CQ. They were probably inspired by Winchell. Another memory is watching ‘The Untouchables‘ on TV with narration by Walter Winchell.
Ironically in his early years as a gossip journalist he was close to prominent criminal identities and later became friends with J. Edgar Hoover. He was Jewish and in the lead up to the second world war was one of the first Americans to criticise Hitler and those in the US who supported him. Another of his targets was isolationist Charles Lindbergh. His fame followed his reporting the famous kidnapping and subsequent trial.
From the clip you can hear the rapid-fire delivery. In many ways it’s like a precursor to much of what we consume today.
He attacked the Klan and its supporters. After the war he aligned himself with the Senator Joe McCarthy’s hunt for communists. But within this short clip there are a couple of places where he briefly questions a couple of issues that were to haunt the US for the next couple of decades – Vietnam and cigarettes and cancer.
Complex and probably unattractive, what I want to know is if he actually knew how to handle those Vibroplex keys.
I’m one of those people who learnt morse code completely the wrong way. Starting off in the seventies with no guide I simply tuned into nightly morse transmissions sent by local hams at a very slow rate. I think they started at 5 words a minute. The main risk there was nodding off between words or impatiently guessing the wrong word.
Contemporary wisdom is that you should start listening at a much faster rate, say 15 or 20 words per minute. This is to prevent you counting dots and dashes in your head, and to make it easier for you to recognise the letters, numbers and even words by their sound.
Learning 15 wpm after mastering say 8 wpm is almost like learning a new language. Students of morse talk of ‘a plateau’ at 10 which is a mighty barrier to progressing up to a more useful conversational speed.
My personal goal is to be able to copy and send at 25 wpm and be able to sustain it over a couple of hours, and to be able to read mostly ‘in my head’, only using pencil and paper for details like names and callsigns.
Now that morse code is no longer compulsory for any ham licenses, surprisingly it seems to be more popular than ever! Especially with those hams who like to use low power to make contacts, or to take the lightest possible transceiver to a remote mountain top as part of the global ‘Summits on the Air‘ activity. Morse gets more mileage than voice per watt, and often these tiny transmitters are only putting out a couple of watts power.
And there’s something delightful in having the skill to read the beeps.
But for me it’s a skill I have to keep working on. I think in my twenties I was quite at ease chattering away at about 12 wpm seemingly for hours on end. Four decades on with a large slab of radio silence in between, I’m quite rusty, even though I know the basics are still there like riding a bike.
I’m a bit wobbly at the paddles, having grown up with the old fashioned straight key (the type you’re likely to have seen in old westerns). But you can feel slow but definite progress from every bit of practice you put in.
Yesterday I had my final CW Academy session. As an indication of how good it was and how much we valued it, not one of the five of us ever missed a single session! There were sixteen hour-long sessions over two months. And it was all free!
Late last year I noticed a couple of messages from Jack W0UCE inviting hams keen to improve their CW skills to join in and pointing them to this page detailing the thinking behind CW Academy’s approach.
What was on offer was a series of online sessions in a small online group re-learning the code. The hour-long sessions are designed to get you to read in your head and to break or avoid habits (like writing everything down) that will prevent you from increasing speed later.
The target for our beginner group was around 20wpm. The sessions took place using Oovoo which is like Skype for groups. (Apparently it’s important that the instructor can see who is having difficulties.) We logged on twice a week. In between times we were expected to practice daily using a nifty online tool, Morse Translator. This neat web app lets you practice listening to code and adjust both character speed and Farnsworth spacing. Our default setting from day one was 20wpm character speed with gaps to yield an effective speed of 10wpm. Morse translator is a great model to help practice sending as well. I found including sending practice helped lock in recognition of words.
Our teacher or Elmer was Rob K6RB. He shared his intense enthusiasm for CW with us as well as his experience on air. After a few weeks of walking us through the alphabet, numbers and prosigns and practising new letters and words, Rob gradually upped the speed. Then the rubber hit the road about week five when we were QSOing back and forth. Rob patiently introduced us to the format of the typical QSO, contesting and even handling a DXpedition. His aim was to prepare us for these so that we’d know what to expect and what was expected of us when we joined in. We got the benefits of decades of operating experience in these sessions.
The CW Academy is an initiative of the CW Operators Club. CWops is international in focus and it was great to be accommodated as the token DX in the group. As they say on the webpage “available to anyone, anywhere”.
The training has got me confident to get back on the air with a practical code speed and as a bonus, interested for the first time in having a go at contesting, initially the CWops fortnightly Mini-CWT contest which we spent a couple of sessions rehearsing.
A big TU to CWops and Rob K6RB for all their efforts running the CW Academy.
Just back from a few hours spent at the annual field day at Wyong hosted by the Central Coast Amateur Radio Club. This has to be the big day out for Australian radio amateurs. People came from near and far. It’s a good barometer of the health of the hobby and the local industry supporting it.
I was delighted to see – as the first exhibit as you enter – a full display of the Elecraft K-line presented by Gary VK4FD. Only thing missing was a KX3. Gary of course is an enthusiast, not an employee of Elecraft. A pretty good indicator of the passionate support the company enjoys.
The flea market became pretty busy as the morning progressed, but maybe not as many stalls as previous years. One stall that stood out for me at least was Stephen VK2SPS’s which included his offering of keys and bugs, surplus to his collection as he focuses on homegrown Australian manufactured keys. Eagle-eyed visitors will spot the McElroy bug (top, centre) and an interesting wooden based French military key towards bottom right.
Brilliant sunny weather, but not too hot to spend some time wandering about looking for a bargain or three. Also saw an impressive display of homebrew gear from members of the ARNSW Homebrew group.
Attention drawn by a post to the SKCC email list to video on the GHD keys site illustrating the ‘European’ style of keying, demonstrated appropriately enough in this video by a Japanese operator. On this page it’s described as the ‘Reaction Method’.
Also saw an interesting exchange of comments on the SKCC list about this style.
Also found the GHD catalogue an eye-opener. Some very sophisticated keys and paddles there. Again these keys are also available from Morse Express.